Russian forces have been ordered to retreat from advancing Ukrainian troops in Kharkiv to focus instead on defending their position in the eastern Donbas region, according to western intelligence sources.
Vladimir Putin’s generals are expected to cede an area nearly half the size of Wales before setting up a new defensive line to the east of the Oskil river, according to intelligence.
Ukrainian forces have reclaimed more than two thousands square miles of territory as they continue their counter-offensive, the country’s president Volodymyr Zelensky said on Tuesday, regaining key locations in the Kharkiv region. He has urged the West to speed up arms supplies to maintain the momentum of its offensives.
Some Russian units fled their positions in “apparent panic” leaving behind a “significant quantity” of weapons, vehicles and ammunition as they fled, Western officials said on Tuesday.
State of the art counter-battery radar systems are among equipment Ukrainian troops have come across as they make surprise gains in the Kharkiv region.
Russian forces are not expected to try and retake land around Kharkiv and “are likely in the process of withdrawing from the whole of occupied northern Kharkiv Oblast, an area of up to 10,000 square km or approaching half the size of Wales”, one official said.
Officials believe it is too early to say whether the Ukrainian advance is a turning-point in the war, but described recent gains as the equivalent to Ukraine having “scored a goal before half-time”.
And they did not deny reports that British and US military officials played a role in advising Ukraine on its counteroffensive.
While Russian soldiers appear to have been ordered to retreat, the “professionalism” of that retreat differed dramatically between different units and areas of the front, the sources say.
“It’s too early to say whether this is a turning point in the war, but it’s a moment that has power in terms of both operations, logistics and psychology,” one official said.
“In marked contrast to Russia, Ukraine has demonstrated impressive operational art and adherence to the core principles of war.”
Holding the Donbas region is high up on the Kremlin’s list of publicly stated strategic objectives, particularly for its domestic audience back in Russia.
The Kremlin insisted on Tuesday that Mr Putin has the backing of the Russian people, despite murmurings of discontent and criticism following Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive.
“Russians support the president, and this is confirmed by the mood of the people... The people are consolidated around the decisions of the head of state,” said Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov.
“As for other points of view, critical points of view, as long as they remain within the law, this is pluralism, but the line is very, very thin, one must be very careful here,” he added.
The response from the Kremlin came after outright criticism of Putin and the military leadership earlier in the week.
Some Russian officials took the brave step of publicly calling for Putin’s resignation.
District councils in the long-serving leader’s home city of St Petersburg were among those who have urged the country to oust the 69-year-old.
As Ukraine began a successful counterattack against Russian-occupied positions in the Kharkiv region, deputies from St Petersburg’s Smolninsky District issued a statement calling for Mr Putin to be tried for treason.
Dmitry Palyuga, one of the councillors, tweeted that the motion was supported by most of the district’s deputies.
“We believe that the decision made by president Putin to start the special military operation is detrimental to the security of Russia and its citizens,” he said.
Criticism of the Russian president has also crept up into the national state TV discourse.
In a rare show of defiance, Boris Nadezhdin, a former liberal politician, told a Gazprom-owned channel that Mr Putin had been misled into thinking Ukraine would capitulate if he invaded.
“We are now at the point where we have to understand that it’s absolutely impossible to defeat Ukraine using those resources and colonial methods with which Russia is trying to wage war,” he said.
Despite the Ukrainian successes, the Kremlin said on Tuesday there was no discussion of a nationwide mobilisation to bolster its forces.
“At the moment no, there is no discussion of this,” Kremlin spokesman Mr Peskov said when asked if Russia would mobilise its reserves after being driven out of almost all of Kharkiv region in northeast Ukraine.
On the ground on Tuesday, Ukrainian troops piled pressure on retreating Russian forces, pressing a counteroffensive that has produced major gains and a stunning blow to Moscow’s military prestige.
Mr Zelensky claimed on Tuesday that his troops had retaken roughly 6,000 square km (just over 2,300 square miles) of territory this month.
Ukraine’s defence military added that in Russian-occupied regions of the Crimea and southern Ukraine, Russian proxies, intelligence officers and military commanders were fleeing,
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